December 11, 2004 in Nation/World

High court takes up Mexican murder convict’s case

Charles Lane Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether the federal courts must give a hearing to a Mexican death-row inmate in Texas who says the state violated international law by trying him for murder without first notifying Mexican diplomats who might have helped him.

The case, which has attracted worldwide attention, is seen as a test of the willingness of the judicial branch of the U.S. government to accept an international institution’s authority at a time when the executive branch under President Bush is taking criticism from many quarters abroad for operating unilaterally in world affairs.

The fact that it arises in the context of the death penalty, for which the United States in general and Texas in particular are under fire in Europe and Latin America, adds to its potential international impact.

The case marks the Supreme Court’s first opportunity to respond to a March 31 decision by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention on consular relations in the case of the Texas inmate, Jose Ernesto Medellin, and 48 other Mexican nationals on death row.

The application of the Vienna Convention to criminal cases is no small issue in the United States, where the population includes millions of noncitizens. Including the Mexicans directly involved in the international court ruling, there are 118 foreign nationals on death row in the United States, from 32 countries.

The court received friend-of-the court briefs from the European Union, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and Mexico, all urging it to hear the case. Also supporting Medellin’s appeal was a group of former U.S. diplomats, including former Iran hostage L. Bruce Laingen, who argued that U.S. citizens abroad will “suffer in kind” if their own courts do not enforce consular access.

In its March ruling, the international court did not attempt to overturn the men’s death sentences. It said only that the treaty – which the United States has ratified and pledged to enforce in cases involving citizens of other ratifying countries, including Mexico – gives Medellin and the other Mexicans an individual right to claim in a federal court that their cases might have turned out differently if they had had consular access. U.S. rules that require them to raise such claims in state court first do not apply, the international court ruled.

The Bush administration had argued against this interpretation, but the vote in the international court was 14-1.

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